By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
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By CP Staff
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THE SOMETIMES high-pressure gray area between art and commerce was where Bodnarchek lived and breathed, and where A Band Apart Commercials began. Bodnarchek launched the company with Bender, whose fortunes had changed since their AFI days. Pulp Fiction was a smash for Harvey Weinstein's Miramax, and Bodnarchek saw an opportunity.
"The smartest thing Michael did was approach Lawrence Bender after Pulp Fiction, when you'd think he'd be difficult to approach, and get a feature producer interested in music videos and commercials," says former A Band Apart executive producer of music videos Lanette Phillips. "He took everyone else by storm. Michael actually went out with a plan to help give music video directors easier access to films, which no one else did."
Bender and Tarantino had already named their own partnership A Band Apart after the success of 1992's Reservoir Dogs (their debut as producer and director, respectively), whose iconic gunmen provided the company its logo. (Bande à part, with its English title Band of Outsiders, was the 1964 Jean-Luc Godard heist film about a couple of crooks hooked on Hollywood B-movies.) The idea animating A Band Apart Commercials was to link outsiders with insiders, and to protect both camps from each other.
Backed by Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, the William Morris Agency, and others, with Tarantino lending the cachet of his name, Bodnarchek put up only his "sweat equity": He ran the new company, kicking off with a commercial for Gatorade starring Michael Jordan and directed by Osbert Parker. The new venture created seemingly incongruous global collaborations: Hong Kong action director John Woo took on a Nike commercial for the 1998 World Cup in Brazil—a soccer-in-an-airport scenario so kinetic it's still circulated on YouTube. By the late '90s, the roster of directors had come to include Tim Burton, actor-director Steve Buscemi, McG, and, with the addition of a music video division, Wayne Isham. Popp credits Bodnarchek with selling Isham to the suits at Anheuser-Busch.
"To put it into a sentence: Michael tamed Wayne to do TV advertising," says Popp. "And I think very few people could have handled that."
Within a couple of years, A Band Apart was billing $40 million a year. The company partnered with Madonna's Maverick Records label in 1997 to distribute A Band Apart Records. (There were no hard feelings, apparently, about Tarantino's "Like a Virgin" speech in Reservoir Dogs.) A Band Apart garnered 21 MTV Video Music Awards nominations in 1999, and 20 in 2000.
"At one point, I was in Prague shooting a Timex commercial with Tim Burton on St. Patrick's Day," remembers Bodnarchek. "I got a phone call from Wayne, and he was in a tunnel in L.A. shooting 'It's My Life' with Bon Jovi. And [director] Nigel Dick called, and the camera had just fallen on Britney's head during the shooting of 'Oops!...I Did It Again.'
"I'm a hillbilly, and my parents came from Poland and Ukraine as peasant farmers. And here I am working with the highest-level people, who all love me in this business."
If that sentiment smacks of neediness—did they "all" really "love" him?—it wasn't long before Bodnarchek began feeling less, and needing less. Eventually, in his own phrase, he "became Hollywood."
"I went and got a very young girlfriend from an Eastern European country," he says. "I divorced my wife. And I regret it, because I had a great wife."
He traded in his Sherman Oaks house for a mansion in Encino, and the beaters for luxury cars. He hired Minnesotans and socialized with them as the leader of the so-called Ice Pack, though he protests that title and catchphrase. He became a campaign contributor and played the stock market.
But his relationship with Bender frayed. (Bodnarchek says he got along fine with Tarantino, toward whom Bender was protective in a proprietary way.) And the company parties had begun to bore him.
"They'd have a 'barbecue' with 400 people there for the environment, and everyone's in their Mercedes and Porsches," says Bodnarchek. "You could have said to anybody, 'You know, my dick just fell off,' and they'd say, 'That's great. You know, we should really get together.' It's all, how can you help them."
Unable to shut off his head in the round-the-clock workday, Bodnarchek began taking Xanax to sleep, then moved on to Ativan. Despite his hatred of flying, he traveled to offices in Paris, Toronto, and London. He juggled 100 calls a day, and paid two assistants.
"I truly got fried," he says. "It got to the point where I would say to my daughters, 'Come on, let's go play in the backyard,' and they'd say, 'Excuse me, Daddy, I need to get on a conference call'—because they heard me say it to them so much. And then that was it. I started shutting off my cell phones."
By 2003, directors had already begun leaving A Band Apart, for various reasons. "Understand, the heyday of that art form, music videos, was ending, and budgets were going down," says producer Rick Fuller, whose Harder/Fuller Films out of Minneapolis, with director Phil Harder, became the Minnesota office of A Band Apart for a few years. "Our departure was not a pleasant one, but time heals for me."